Welcome to the Women in Fantasy Illustration interview series. I am interviewing prominent women who work in the Fantasy Illustration Industry. You will find the links to more interviews at the bottom of the page.
This week’s interview is with Dubai-residing illustrator and feminist Cassandre Bolan, who has a strong focus on the symbolism and ideas behind her artwork. Enjoy!
1. Please give a brief introduction of yourself, your career and your work.
“I create Women in Fantasy that inspire Women in Reality”. My brand is focused on providing artistic, academic, and first-hand acumen to the client looking for an illustration with a feminist conscience. Drawing from my passions of pre-civilization goddess worship, the sacred feminine, mythology, fairy tales, matriarchal societies, symbolism, and women’s studies I showcase the beauty of strong diverse women who flaunt their hard-won confidence, their agency, and above all – break the rules. Currently I am working on book covers, trading cards, and a personal series of female greek gods accompanied by feminist rewritten myths. I have worked for clients such as Cartoon Network and Fantasy Flight Games, been a 2014 Illustrators of the Future award winner, and was featured in ImagineFX magazine. I live and paint in Dubai and you can follow me on Facebook and Instagram!
2. When did realize you wanted to make a career out of illustrating?
When I was two I tattooed my tongue and teeth green with a permanent marker so art is probably literally in my blood! My parents were so proud. I have always known the only thing I could be was an artist. I only figured out I wanted to become an Illustrator after I went to art school, got my degree, worked in animation, freelanced in a bit of everything, failed at freelancing in a bit of everything, went to Spectrum and Illuxcon, was broke a few times, traveled, had kids, painted a little and lived a lot!
When I was two I tattooed my tongue and teeth green with a permanent marker so art is probably literally in my blood! My parents were so proud. I have always known the only thing I could be was an artist.
3. What difficulties have you faced in transitioning into becoming a professional illustrator?
Rabid space squirrels, love-struck indigo monkeys, and a paralyzing fear of ceiling fans. I lie…they were crimson monkeys. I have also long ago had to contend with much less dramatic monsters such as the Artistic Apathy, a lazy giant slimy salamander that gave me wrong directions, made me listlessly surf Facebook for years and ate up all my free time! Can you tell that I read bedtime stories to kids every night yet? Now motherhood is my new obstacle and it has me on a strict low-free-time diet so I’m starving! That has been a huge difficulty- the frustration of not being able to charge down the road when I’m so close to my goals. On the other hand, the scarcity of time has forced me to prioritize, manage, and has given me a very finely tuned appreciation for it’s value and I am finally not shy about asking to be compensated fairly for it. It’s good to be 30! Another difficulty that took a bite out of my career was that for a year I was broke and chasing projects purely for money. I was stressed, burdened with childcare, and I didn’t have the attention to put 100% into some opportunities like I should have. This slowed me down even further. Money may not buy love but it can buy freedom.
(...) Motherhood is my new obstacle and it has me on a strict low-free-time diet so I’m starving! That has been a huge difficulty- the frustration of not being able to charge down the road when I’m so close to my goals.
4. What do you like the most about illustrating?
I love that Illustration is at it’s heart a story told to change society. Using a vocabulary of symbols, colors, iconography, and context you can have a conversation across languages, across cultures, and across time. I especially study symbols from the Ancient Near East and Classical World since so much of my work incorporates mythology.
In my personal series of female Greek Gods I include subverted symbols to visually rewrite the narrative. For example in “Goddess Hercules” she is leading the animals instead of slaying them for the twelve labors. Originally, the Nemean lion, man-eating horses, the Hydra and the other animals each had relevance to goddess-worship and Hercules acted as a symbol of patriarchal power (at a historical time when patriarchal civilizations were conquering matriarchal civilizations).
The mother goddess Hera’s patronage of Hercules is still marked, by the blood-spattered lily in her hair but she is now sanctifying the reclaiming of power instead of it’s capture. If you’re interested in hearing my talk more about my revised Gods and their myths please follow me this upcoming year.
5. What do you like the least about it?
My least favorite part of Illustration is the devaluing of it. Even at the top 10% of your field you likely won’t be making much. Potential clients can low ball and offer to pay in exposure. Also taxes! Ugh. Do I have to? I literally get so stressed out doing taxes that my body overheats and I have to go step inside the refrigerator for a minute just to keep from combusting.
6. You like to work with strong female characters and gender roles in your art. Can you tell us a little about this?
When I was in high school I picked up Merlin Stone’s “When God was a Woman” and my heart just caught fire. It became the nexus that all my satellite interests started to orbit around. The small alien possibility that women haven’t always been second-rate citizens was magical to me, like the glimmer at the bottom of Pandora’s box. That was my first trip out of the universe I knew and since then I’ve been exploring a space where women are diverse and celebrated for their strengths- not their superficial sexuality.. I’ve always exclusively drawn women, since I was doodling doe-eyed Disney princesses with my crayons.
Now, I mainly draw commanding middle-aged women that turn viewers to stone with their flinty sneers. I have a thing- what can I say! I love middle-aged women, especially, because of the steely confidence they wear like armor; earned from years of life experience. It took me years to realize how heavy my own art was with male gaze (yes, women can draw unfeminist females too!) and now that I know better I’ve build my whole brand around the “female” gaze. In the end, I am simply doing this because I’ve always felt weak and quiet but I want to be powerful and heard. I want other women to have that. Power is the oldest story, older than Love. I want to rewrite that story and give women a happy ending.
(...) I’ve been exploring a space where women are diverse and celebrated for their strengths- not their superficial sexuality.. I’ve always exclusively drawn women, since I was doodling doe-eyed Disney princesses with my crayons.
7. You have lived in Dubai. Can you tell us about this experience and how you balanced an art career with living abroad?
Living in Dubai has been amazing. It’s population is 98% expats from any country in the world you can think of. I also happen to have married into a local family so I get an insider peek into the culture. Everybody speaks English so there’s ample opportunity for communication and it’s a modern cosmopolitan city (No, I don’t have to wear a veil! Yes, I could wear a bikini on the beach!). I have been there for a decade and went from hating it and feeling out of place in the beginning to loving it and feeling out of place back home in the US now. It has fundamentally changed me. The diversity is amazing and it gives you a deeper perspective on how people think. It’s especially been interesting for me to see how women all over the world overcome different obstacles and what their lives are like. Living abroad has opened up more opportunities for me simply by removing any fear of travel. Also when you leave America you have an accent! How cool is that!
There’s no career balancing needed to live abroad. Most artists work remotely now anyway. Actually sometimes international living can enable your art career by easing your finances! Google “digital nomad”. You can live in a cheap location like Thailand or Bali very comfortably on a meager artists salary if you do your research. I’ve daydreamed about starting an artist colony out there someday!
8. Who are some of your main inspirations and why?
The most interesting subjects in the whole world for me are: Feminism, The Sacred Feminine movement, pre-civilization’s matriarchal cultures, The Ancient Near East, Mythology as a mirror of society, Gender in Fairy tales, Ancient Symbolism and Iconography, Modern Shamanism and Tribal Life, Atheism, Paganism, Comparative Religion, Evolutionary Psychology, Women’s portrayal in Modern Media and Art History, and Feminist Anthropology just to name a few. These are what I hid in the bathroom to read while my kids are looking for me!
9. What is the best advice you have ever received regarding your artwork and career?
I can’t recall a specific piece of advice that changed the course of my career but I warmly remember all the supportive encouragement that my family and the art community have wrapped me in over the years. That is what really enables artists to struggle on and improve. So get out there and knit a cozy sweater of friends, family, and other artists that you can pull on when it’s cold out. To honor that tradition, I’ll pass on my own purls (get it!) of wisdom.
I believe that the process of creating an artist is like the process of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It’s philosophy holds that objects are more valued and beautiful after they’ve been broken. I knew with fanatical certainty since I was two that I wanted to become an artist. But, it took me 29 years to discover what I wanted to paint. In hindsight it should have been obvious but it was life’s education in empathy and painful struggles that finally gave me the emotional drive to see it. You find your mission by falling down, not by climbing up. When I was younger I was a perfectly round smooth bowl, brand new. Now, I have chips from falling down and cracks from pressure but I have learned to glue myself back together with gold. That gold, is my art. So don’t worry if you’re a latecomer to the art world. Don’t worry if you’re a stay-at-home mom who only has one hour to paint between putting her kids to bed and falling asleep in her midnight bowl of cheerios. Don’t worry if you don’t know what your mission is yet. You get more beautiful with time (especially true for you the women out there!).
Bonus question: If you could only donate a million dollars to one Charity who would it help? Is that because you can relate through personal experience? Can you connect your satellite passions with this topic? There’s your artistic mission!
I believe that the process of creating an artist is like the process of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It’s philosophy holds that objects are more valued and beautiful after they’ve been broken.
10. What are some of your career goals for the future?
My personal life and art life are pretty intertwined and I’m mapping out the future based around my kid’s development. Last year while my baby was young and very dependent I focused mostly on quiet self-tutoring and leveling up technical skills. This year with a bit more time I’m adding a focus on creating brand awareness by being active on social media, updating people on my female Greek gods, sharing interesting passages from my research, growing a fan base, and starting a blog about how I create bad ass female characters. As the kids grow and I gradually have more time I am looking forward to running a kickstarter for my female Gods, living with a matriarchal tribe to experience it firsthand, and as syrupy as this sounds- making art that inspires real women.
Thank you for reading, you can find more about Cassandre Bolan on her website as well as follow her on social media, links are below.
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View all Women in Fantasy Illustration interviews here.